Book Review: "A Prayer for the Dying"

I finished this book yesterday and have been thinking about it today trying to decide how I feel about it. “A Prayer for the Dying” by Stewart O’Nan is a deeply disturbing narrative, but the more I think about it, the more I realize what an amazing writer O’Nan really is.

In an unusual but effective device, the book is written in the second person singular present tense. It’s distracting at first, but ultimately succeeds in getting the reader so deeply entwined in the main character’s mind that the horror of the story comes home in a most powerful manner.

The narrator/main character, Jacob, is a Civil War veteran who serves as the preacher, sheriff, and undertaker of Friendship, Wisconsin. He feels love and responsibility for his wife and baby daughter, but also for each of the townspeople – being in charge of their spiritual lives, physical security, and final arrangements. From the beginning, the reader feels Jacob’s sense of responsibility, and we find that he is consumed with being good. Slowly we begin to wonder if he’s consumed with being good for good reasons, or for selfish reasons – or is he more concerned with other people thinking he is good?

As the story moves along, the reader becomes more confused, or, to put it more accurately, Jacob becomes more confused, and pulls the reader along with him as the whole town succumbs to the ravages of plague and wildfire. Jacob is trying to be good, trying to take responsibility, but he’s carried along by the horror of what’s happening to his family and his town, and becomes so caught up in the desperation that he can’t get out of the chilling web he’s helped to create. We realize he’s gone mad, but then we find he’s been fairly mad since the beginning but hid it well…

O’Nan described “A Prayer for the Dying” as a “Christian existential horror book” and that it is. I’m not sure of O’Nan’s personal views on faith, but he writes convincingly of the tension between faith and despair when things fall apart. Interestingly, on the last page Jacob thinks:

“The whole idea of penance is selfish, misguided. You can’t bargain with God, buy Him with pieties. This is what you’ve found out – that even with the best intentions, even with all of your thoughtful sermons and deep feelings and good works, you can’t save anyone, least of all yourself. And yet it’s not defeat. After everything, you may still be saved. Your mother was wrong; it’s not up to you. It’s always been His decision.”

I’m not sure if O’Nan intended to, but he hit on a truthful conclusion. All too often we are content to live with a small, tidy faith hiding our true attempts to control our lives. When tragedy strikes, as it does all too often, all of our efforts are exposed as ineffectual, and we are left with the truth that God is sovereign – our attempts to exercise control only meet with futility.

Without Christ, that conclusion is certainly grounds for despair and nihilism. For the believer, however, this is grounds for our hope and peace in this life. The Christian can rest in the knowledge that God is in control of circumstances, and that ultimately we can look forward to eternity with Him. This is a joyful conclusion!

I like books that make me think, and I found that after much reflection, this haunting story reminded me of the hope and joy I have in my salvation. Again, I’m not sure that was the author’s intent, but that is what I took from it. If anyone else has read this book, I’d be interested to know what you thing of it.

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